BROOKFIELD, Wis. -- An abundance of self-service may be fast becoming the epitome of consumer convenience in supermarket prepared foods.
But it's not so convenient for a retailer if hanging the program on self-service leads to plunging sales and rising shrink.
Elizabeth Little, co-owner of V. Richard's Market here, is an advocate of this and other lessons in meals merchandising. And she has learned them the hard way.
Little is a supermarket prepared foods veteran, with her single upscale unit counted among the industry's innovators. She has had chefs on premises for more than ten years, for example, and was pushing restaurant-quality meal components in the deli long before home meal replacement became a rallying cry.
And she is still trying to get it right. With the store's latest remodeling, Little has swung V. Richard's back towards a full-service philosophy, adding a bigger kitchen that will both increase production and smooth out the production calendar for prepared food items.
"The kitchen is 30% more efficient," said Little. That one in-store plant had been supplying the operator's catering department, 90-seat cafeteria-style restaurant and deli department.
"We can now keep up with demand. Prior to the remodel, the catering was maxing out," she said.
The remodel also gave the V. Richard's the opportunity to make a badly needed correction in the balance of service and self-service. Self-service prepared foods sales had taken a dive, reportedly by a much as 50% this year compared to sales in the self service prepared food section last year.
"We were throwing things out," she said.
Little determined that it was the level of service that was the root of the sales slippage. "Service is our trademark. It is what is expected," she explained. "Our customers were unhappy with prepackaged entrees. They want the personal touch of full service."
Since shifting to more full-service prepared food offerings, V. Richard's Market has been able to reclaim about 15% of those sales so far.
Sauces, soups, dips, pizza and quiche remained as self-service items. "Quiche and pizza always sell," Little said.
The self-service products are merchandised in a new walk-around case that was installed as part of the store remodel.
The lack of service was not the only problem. Little said a shift in competition also contributed to the fall from grace of many grab-and-go meal items at V. Richard's.
"Ten years ago we were one of the first take-out food outlets with a chef on premises, and it is hard to sell upscale food when a customer's last culinary experience was Burger King.
"Now that entrees are more popular, many more retail formats are offering meals-to-go. People cannot distinguish chef-prepared items from those prepared in a commissary or supplied by a vendor. It is hard to justify the cost of a chef-prepared item in this situation," she said.
With the shift to more service, however, V. Richard's Market did not tinker with its variety. Customers liked the foods, Little said. It was the lack of personal touch that customers missed from the department.
What's more, Little has become convinced that the need for customer service goes hand in hand with V. Richard's penchant for upscaling in an otherwise conservative market.
"We're not too funky for Milwaukee," she said, "but no matter how good our products are or how high a level of quality we achieve, we are still a grocery store.
"Milwaukee is conservative, but the people like different things. The conservative part comes in pricing. Our customers know what they like but they are always looking for a deal."
That attitude leads V. Richard's to keep the deli staff knowledgeable about the products offered, so that customers can be persuaded that items with a perceived premium price are worth it.
"Our staff must be able to give clear explanations about our products," Little said.
Meanwhile, to help the store keep up with food trends, Little pays close attention to new cook books, food periodicals and restaurants.
"Restaurants educate me, and I learn how things are prepared differently," she said. "You can go to 20 different Italian restaurants that are basically all the same, but they each use different twists to keep their dishes exciting and their customers returning.
"I have learned a lot from restaurants," she said, "in particular, ethnic food ingredients and various cooking techniques.
"But the most important thing I have learned from restaurants is pricing. We are encouraged when restaurants offer the same items that we offer," she said.
"In our deli case, we have offered fresh Buffalo Mozzarella with tomatoes and basil, for example. Customers felt that the price was high, but because it was specialty cheese we felt it was warranted. Now, local restaurants are offering fresh Buffalo Mozzarella with tomatoes and basil, and we are experiencing a tremendous sell through."
Little believes in this cross-industry pollination, and practices it by sending her own food-service staff to restaurants to eat and learn.
"I need them to be knowledgeable about ingredients and preparation techniques in all the cool, hip restaurants," she said. "I also ask them to get copies of the menu so we can study what is being offered, in what grouping and for how much."
The company's commitment to education is carried even further, to the customers themselves, propelled by a philosophy that considers offering meals solutions a task that extends
"We offer cooking courses, wine classes and seafood seminars," Little said. "We discovered when we educated the customers, the purchases go up.
"We can teach customers to use short cuts. Using this route, supermarket operators will not have to be panic stricken and follow the leader of the day," she said.
"We can lead and teach customers how to cook, using products from our stores, rather than having them rely on a chef to cook all their meals for them."
Customers may buy a center-of-the-plate item, or complimentary side dishes for the item they selected from the meat case, or use convenience items and rely on partial cooking of meals, Little suggested.
"A customer that wants only a quick meal will go to a fast food outlet or a restaurant. They will not spend $8 to $10 on a packaged meal in a supermarket. We supermarket food-service operators can find a happy medium without moving all the way to prepared and packaged foods."
There also has to be flexibility. After the remodel, V. Richard's has tried harder to tailor its service-case assortment to accommodate the fluctuations in demand throughout the week.
"We don't have a large variety during the week on display," said Little. "Generally we will have tenderloins and pasta salads, and on the weekends, we will add in special items like roasted duck and strip loins with roasted vegetables and increase the entree display space up to 8-feet.
"On Fridays, we fill the case with higher-end appealing items that can easily be served as an entree or an appetizer," said Little.